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The dirty pleasure of Dallas and Hagman’s J.R.

Dallas arrived in Ireland when I was a teenager, just after the Pope left. The Pope – the cheerful, wily John Paul II – came to tell the population of that accursed island that they were great people: conservative, traditional Catholics who had no truck with modern notions.

Many people loved it. The Pope's visit gave conservative Ireland a tremendous boost. But the Pope went home. J.R. Ewing and his evil machinations stayed, coming into people's homes every week. Eventually the country was besotted.

The recent death of Larry Hagman, who played J.R. with such aplomb, compels us to put his greatest role and the success of Dallas in context. Hagman, who had earlier had a good television career while starring in the ridiculous I Dream of Jeannie, was largely forgotten and avid for work when Dallas came his way. It was clear that he relished the outrageous badass arrogance of J.R. And it was his lip-smacking relish that quickly dominated the show and made it an international sensation.

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Later, when I came to write a book about growing up during the early years of TV in Ireland, one scene from Dallas immediately came to mind. Sue Ellen (Linda Gray), J.R.'s long-suffering but conniving wife, sat across from him and sneered, "Which slut are you going to stay with tonight, J.R.?" He coolly replied, with a smirk, "Whoever it is has got to be more interesting than the slut I'm looking at now." It wasn't The Waltons, you'll notice, as we did in Ireland.

Hagman's J.R. Ewing made for terrific television, a figure unseen before. Bad guys on TV were supposed to get their comeuppance. J.R. didn't. He became the most compelling figure on the show, and probably he was never meant to be. It was what Hagman brought to the role – the brazen smirk and sheer enjoyment of being malicious that boosted J.R. into iconic, must-see status.

Today, many think of Dallas as successful trash from an earlier era. But it was much more than that. It celebrated avarice with glee. It made badass, wildcat capitalism gloriously good entertainment. In Ireland, J.R. was followed and enjoyed with a certain fanaticism because he was a rogue in the Irish tradition. A guy who pulled strokes, enjoyed his booze and women and didn't care who knew it. Much of what Dallas was about – the family feuding, the secret deals, the age-old hatreds – was Ireland's culture writ large.

As some people recognized, half the plays in the canon of the Abbey Theatre had the same themes as the story arc in a season of Dallas. And there are some people who will claim that the show's impact helped to give rise to the mad avarice and shameless greed that fuelled the Celtic Tiger boom, the one that went bust eventually. The Pope, God bless him, couldn't deliver a tiny fraction of the fun that J.R. Ewing did.

I never encountered Hagman on the TV Critics Press Tour in Los Angeles. I missed his appearance to talk up the new, rebooted Dallas that has been made by cable channel TNT. (It airs in Canada on Bravo and Hagman will be in several episodes of the new season when it arrives.)

Hagman was admired in a way that few TV stars are. He was famous for his wit, good humour and generosity of spirit. There isn't a TV critic in North America who hasn't heard about a legendary party that he threw for critics at his Malibu home in the late 1970s. His mother, Broadway star Mary Martin, played hostess, he held court in a hot tub, and he encouraged the ladies and gentlemen of the press to join him. The evening ended with some wild partying on the beach, Hagman waving a Texas flag throughout, and ended only when a neighbour, the late Burgess Meredith, complained vociferously about the noise.

That sort of thing doesn't happen any longer. And there are no more shows with the impact of Dallas. The TV landscape has splintered into network, cable and other platforms, and while there have been massive international hits from the networks, shows such as Desperate Housewives and House, nothing can replicate the sizzle of Dallas and the dirty pleasure it brought. A good deal of that pleasure came from Hagman breathing his own personality and mischief into J.R. Ewing. That should be acknowledged.

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Airing tonight

Frontline: Big, Sky, Big Money (PBS, 8 p.m.) is a repeat of an episode that now stands as a fascinating footnote to the recent U.S. elections. The program examines the situation in Montana regarding the funding of "super PACs" and advocacy groups that support certain politicians. Whose money is at work and why? In Montana, it seems, the situation is so murky that it's impossible to find where the money comes from.

All times ET. Check local listings.

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About the Author
Television critic

John Doyle is The Globe and Mail's television critic. His column appears in the Review section Monday to Thursday and on Saturday. He has been the paper's critic since 2000. More

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